Various Memories of the Odeon

My last memory of the Odeon was of a charmless concrete box which was subsequently badly divided into a few smaller boxes in the 70s to try to provide a multi-screen facility. The smallest screen was like watching a large plasma screen in this century and surrounded by a few dozen sometimes noisy other people. If it got to (I think screen 3) it was probably not worth watching.

It can’t have always been cold and raining outside, but this is what it always seemed to be like, especially if the queues, which snaked around the corner and sometimes down the steps to the neighbouring street, meant you got soaked and hypothermic before reaching the drippy shelter of the canopy. The car park was a bit of waste ground opposite and usually full and muddy.

Roll on to the 90s and I was no longer a teenager trying to impress a girlfriend with all the glamour I could afford. Now I was the Chair of the Cinema Working Party of the Council. We looked at everywhere, having been told by the Rank execs who came to meet us that it was dead duck and just an interference to Hatfield and Hemel’s proper multi-screens (they also asked us all when we had all last gone before they closed it – to our shame, they had a point).

When they left they also tried to make sure legally that it could never be used as a cinema again, to avoid any compensation. We looked at the retail park at the bottom of Holywell Hill, with loads of space and parking and decent transport links vital to younger people. We looked at an old car showroom further up London Road. We looked at somewhere in Ashley Road, but it was too far out and practically in the Galleria. Then a subsequent working party looked at behind the Arena. Great place, but not an acceptable mass or design to make it commercially viable.

Since then I have enjoyed loads of visits to the Rex and enjoy the place, the program and the sheer quirkiness of it and James’ team. It will be a perfect fit for St Albans.

Honorary Alderman John Gunner, Former Chair, St Albans Council Working Party

I was working in London and going out with Harry, a student at the then Hatfield Poly. He lived in St Albans in a grimy little flat on the London Road and had a job as an usher in the cinema. I had just bought a little 100cc motorbike and would putter up the A1 on Friday nights after work to see him. I would arrive halfway through his shift and he would sneak me into an empty seat to wait for him at the end: I saw the second half of a lot of films that summer. Coming from Scotland, I had hardly heard of St Albans, and since I only saw that stretch of London Road I didn’t get a great impression of it – I certainly never imagined that I would end up living here for 20 years (and still counting!).

I saw a weird mixture of films, including many I would never have normally watched. Some were classics however – such as Back to the Future, Purple Rose of Cairo, Out of Africa and the Breakfast Club. I’m looking forward to seeing more films there one day.


My earliest memories go back to 1930, when I watched the burnt-out ruins of the old ‘Poly’ being demolished and replaced by the new ‘Capitol’ cinema.

The original picture house had been built by Melbourne-Cooper in 1901 on the site of the older Polytechnic building, and the name stuck, although it was actually the Alpha.

When it opened in 1931, it was a brilliant affair, with cinema organ played by W. J. Hemsley, and I think practically all of St Albans went there.  


I did visit the Odeon once at least with my wife Beverly … I’m afraid neither of us can even remember what film we saw, we think it was probably one of the Bond films, not much use for your memories… For what it’s worth, I do recall sneakily parking in Paxton Road and climbing up the long steps at the side and being impressed by the dramatic change of level between the front and rear of the cinema. Parking, if you arrived early enough was in a plot of land on the opposite side of London Road. I remember that the cinema had already been split into 2 or 3 screens and that unfortunately during the quiet bits you could hear some of the other films as a muffled noise in the background.


You could smoke of course- the Odeon screen had a thick haze of smoke over it. Smoking section to the right, non smoking to the left, but it didn’t matter as you stank of it anyway. Underage smokers could get away with it in there! Children had sweet cigarettes to pretend they smoked like their mum and dad.


In the 1940s, there were no phones, or hardly anyone had a phone at home, so there’d be a message appear on the screen suddenly, in handwriting, hastily scrawled: ‘Can Mrs So-and-So please return home immediately?’ and a woman – it was usually a woman – would scurry out of the cinema, accompanied by titters from the audience.

There were the Pathé news reels and the Town Crier at the beginning. In 1944, Mount Etna erupted, and there was the volcano on the screen, right in front of you – and suddenly sirens screaming all around us as they went past the cinema. We thought the cinema was erupting!

Sometimes there’d be air raid warning in progress signs, they would suddenly interrupt the film, and a few people would leave so they got home before there was an air raid, but most of us stayed. It was probably safer in the cinema, or just depended on how good the film was!

Bernard Penny

I used to go the cinema regularly with a friend and prior to going to the movie we used to go to the Italian restaurant which was just a few yards away which is now closed, and we negotiated to have the main meal before the movie and then go back and have the pudding after we’d seen the movie….and we always used to sit in the executive seats which were at the back.  

{Were they more expensive?}  

More expensive, and they had this little white thing so that when you put your head back it was always on a clean sheet.  

{Do you remember any particular films?}  

No, I remember the meals!  


I moved to St Albans in 1988 and a trip to the Odeon wasn’t a very glamorous outing in those days as it was just starting to decline in appearance and attendance. Visiting by car involved battling for a space in a rough and ready car lot on the opposite side of London Road and then cross the road to  queue under the small outside canopy (often in the rain) to gain access to the entrance foyer which even then was decidedly shabby.

The interior was a lovely piece of Art deco styling which in my opinion is entirely suitable for cinema décor and which I hope still survives intact today and will be restored in the new Odyssey when it opens.

The outstanding films from my Odeon visits were a whole series of the Star War films that I used to see with my son and a very scary first viewing of Alien. Sci-fi was high on my agenda and the big screen was the place to see them, who can forget the opening titles of Star Wars as the letters appeared from the bottom of the screen and disappeared into infinity.

The old Odeon was a nostalgic venue where you really came to watch a film, sit on a swing down seat, in the dark with lap full of popcorn and a drink, and enjoyed the experience of seeing a picture on the big screen. It was a lot different from today’s cinema with the plush seats, Dolby surround sound and a digital screen all neatly housed within a shopping Mall.

My reason for comparing St Albans Odeon with the Uxbridge Odeon is that the experience of going to either was similar in some respects, but the Uxbridge Odeon was a little more chic, it had chrome door handles and a tiled exterior in black and cream and a sweeping road leading up to the foyer, allowing cars to pull up at the entrance. I don’t ever remember arriving by car but my visits there always seemed to be a special outing – perhaps it was just my age at the time.

It was such a shame when it was demolished and made way for an office block in 1984. I was fortunate to be able to rescue the first ‘O’ of the Odeon sign as it was pulled down. The demolition squad thought I was mad, but for me it is a real memento of a cinematic experience that I cherished and I am glad to be able to share it with you – perhaps not in the condition it was when it shone out to the customers in the high street but what can you expect from an object that is probably 80 years old. 

Clive Patterson  

The Odeon, in our opinion, was ‘Dress to impress’. The other cinemas weren’t a patch on it for glamour.

Alan and Sue Watson

A sign would come on the screen saying ‘Ladies please remove your hats’.

Bernard Penny

I went to see classical concerts there; Irene Kohler played, and Fistolauri conducted. There was a very smart restaurant, the Palm Court, where you could take tea, with Lloyd Loom chairs and tables. People made much more of an effort back then.

Roy Hicks

It was a haven from cold and unemployment. I’d stay there all day and watch films over and over again – nobody minded – to escape the austerity outside. This was just after the war.

Bernard Penny

I think that most people in St Albans used to feel that the Odeon, or Capitol as it was then, was the premiere cinema, better class. The whole place was run with a nice air of people coming to have a pleasant evening.

Nigel Price

In the foyer there they had tables and you could have afternoon tea there, and people always dressed up to go to the cinema, you always put your best gear on, and wore hats. I mean you’d sometimes get behind someone with a huge hat… it was very glamorous in those days, compared with people’s lifestyles now, I mean to go there it was like going to a theatre that was really an occasion, rather than it is today, we used to always dress up as if we were going somewhere very special.


I had a love affair with the Odeon…I would have done anything to get to that place.

Bernard Penny

It was alright as long as you weren’t accosted by dirty old men who felt your knees! But back then you didn’t complain. You just moved seats.


I used to try to sneak in for nothing, but I didn’t really have the nerve to do it…I once failed to sneak in, and spent the whole film outside, ear pressed against the door, listening to the screams of the audience watching ‘Alien’…


Before the lights went up everybody would make a run for the exits because once God Save the Queen came on you had to stop….and you had to stand up. So everybody made a beeline to get out the door before the God Save the Queen bit, and get across the road into the chippie. I’d always hate going with my dad because he would make us wait in the cinema until the very end.


You’d be aware, when the cinema was all one screen still, that you’d see the light at the bottom door, you’d see the chink in the light appear, and you’d know someone had sneaked in- you never did anything about it, you’d never bother calling an usherette and saying Hey they’ve got in for nothing, it wasn’t part of the culture, you’d just go, lucky them.



This page was added on 16/07/2013.

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  • Used to cycle there from Hatfield,when serving my apprenticeship at DH, mainly to see films but also the occasional music concert. Years later I was looking at a program I got there covering the tour of Little Richard,The Everly Brothers and Bo Diddley in 1963 and noticed that another band was supporting them – apparently they were called The Rolling Stones !

    By Dave Irvine (20/01/2014)